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Poet Harvey Holton is probably best known to many members for his collaboration with Hamish Moore on Hamish’s first album, and for his fine poem Harvey Holton’s Compliments tae Hamish Moore’s Lallan Pipes, published in COMMON STOCK some years ago [Vol 2 No 2, Nov 1985]. Harvey was to have been the guest speaker at this year’s [1996]

LBPS Burns Supper in January, but ended up snowed up at his home in Fife. The Immortal Memory subsequently arrived by Fax(!) and Jim Gilchrist read an edited version of it. Here we present the full version of Harvey Holton’s text.

Aboot the time when Burns wiz walkin the earth there wiz muckle talk aboot the origins o baith language an music.

They wiz tryin tae trace the path frae the primordial grunt tae the eloquence an lyricism that we awe ken the man wiz deeply endowed wi. The union o poetry an music wiz associated mair an mair, as the 18th century grew, wie the ideal o simplicity that hud been realised in the lyrics o the ancients. A simplicity that Burns himsell agreed wie, an indeed expressed maist gloriously in A Cotters Setarday Nicht.

Aboot 1953 an American Professor Abrams traced the growth o the idea o poetry as bein “expressive” an as haein its origin in the utterance o primitive man. He showed us hoo a wheen o classical scholars developed a theory o language as comin frae interjections “articulated under the impetus of violent passions” an because the howlin o passions is naituraly rhythmical an figurative primordial poetry an song stertit. Views o this kind were most maist influentially expressed bi the Scots philosophers o the time because o their strang interest in primitivism. In 1735 Thomas Blackwell, professor o Greek at Marischal College, Aberdeen, published an “Enquiry into the Life and Writings of Homer” whaur he suggested that language cam frae “rude accidental sounds” expressin primitive sang. Adam Fergusson, professor o Moral Philosophy at Edinburgh in the 1760s an 1770s, talks o Homer as the bard o a society o noble savages.

“The simple passions ...are the movements of his own mind ... Simple and vehement in his conceptions and feelings, he knows no diversity of thought, or of style, to mislead or to   exercise his judgement. He delivers the emotions of the heart in words suggested by the heart; for he knows no other.”

An Hugh Blair, first Professor o Rhetoric an Belle-lettres at Edinburgh frae 1762-1783, an arbiter o taste in this douce city, took his ain share in the study o primitivism. He said:

“Man is both poet and musician, by nature, the same impulse which prompted the enthusiastic Poetic Style, prompted a certain melody, or modulation of sound, suited the emotions of Joy or Grief, of Admiration, Love or Anger. There is a power in sound, which, partly from nature, partly from association, makes such pathetic impressions on the fancy, as delight even the most wild barbarians. Music and poetry, therefore, had the same rise; they were prompted by the same occasions; there were united in song; and, as long as they continued united, they tended, without doubt, mutually to heighten and exalt each other’s powers.”

   “The music of that early period” he goes on to say, “was beyond doubt, extremely simple; and must have consisted chiefly of such pathetic notes, as the voice could adapt to the words of the song ... Musical instruments were intended simply to accompany the voice, and to heighten the melody of song. The Poet’s strain was always heard ... the Bard sung his verses, and played upon his harp or lyre at the same time. In this state, the art of Music was, when it produced all these great effects, of which we read so much in ancient story ..When instrumental music came to be studied as a separate art, divested of the Poet’s Song, and formed into the artificial and intricate combinations of harmony, it lost all its ancient power of inflaming the hearers with strong emotions; and sunk into the art of mere amusement, among polished and luxurious nations.”

This wull aye be an awfy owersimplification an diz ignore the arts o Purcell an Handell, whae brocht poetry an music back thegither efter medieval polyphony hud wrocht them apairt. The owerscttin o complex harmonies - Discords, Resolutions, Fugues an Canons - an emphasis o an “Expression and true Pathos” made muckle smeddum in Scotland, whaur the traditions o fowk-sang an ballad were strang. Here amin ither airts in the echteenth century there wiz a growin sophistication in musical taste an performance.

Indeed bi 1772 Robert Ferguson, whae Burns himscll wiz awfy tacn wie an influenced bi, could lament wi some truth that fowk-sangs were gien owre tae continental music.

         At gloamin now the bagpipe’s dumb

                   Whan weary owsen hameward come;

                   Sae sweetly as it wont to bum,

                   And pibrachs skreed,

                   We never hear its warlike hum;                     For music’s dead.

         Now foreign sonnets bear the gree.

                   And crabbed queer variety                     Of sound fresh sprung frae Italy,                     A bastard breed!

                   Unlike that saft-tongu’d melody                     Which now lies dead.

                                  (Extract from Robert Ferguson’s Elegy on the Death of Scots Music).

But even in the big hoose, an in Edinburgh high society, sophisticated musical taste wiz weak an gie thin; the hert o Scottish music, as weel in the drawin rooms an concert-haws as in the cottarhoose, wiz the native tradition. Indeed Scotland’s passionate concern for her cultural heritage, deepend bi the loss o ony political integrity, wiz reflectit in - an in turn succoured bi - mony gaitherins o poetry an airs. Atween Pearson’s Original Scots Tunes, brocht oot by Henry Playford in 1700, an Aird’s Airs, published atween 1782 an the hinner end o the century, there were mair nor thirty collections o Scots tunes published, an these ran tae thoosans o tunes. At the same time there wir, frae Alan Ramsay’s Tea-Table miscallany o 1724 tae David Herd’s Ancient and Modern Scottish Songs 0 1791, a when o collections o lyric poetry pit oot. This awe climaxed in the great Scots Musical Museum o six hunner sangs, wrocht by James Johnson an Robert Burns atween 1787 an the poet’s death in 1796 an Dod Thamsons Select Collection makit atween 1793 an 1818, that hauds near a hunner sangs bi Burns in a mair or less manglt state.

oo tae ging back a few year tae September 1785 wi find a young Ayrshire fermer whae, at 26 had bin nursein his talents in Scottish poetry an Inglis sang collections, enterin a Jang an important note in his Commonplace Quair: :

There is a certain irregularity in the old Scotch songs, a redundancy of syllables with respect to that exactness of accent and measure that the English poetry requires, but which glides in, most melodiously with the respective tunes to which they are set. For instance, the fine old song of The Mill Mill O, to give it a plain prosaic reading it halts prodigiously out of measure; on the other hand, the song set to the same tune in Bremner’s collection of Scotch Songs which begins “To Fanny fair could I impart” it is most exact measure, and yet, let them both be sung before any real Critic, one above the biasscs of prejudice, but a thorough judge of Nature, --- how flat and spiritless will the last appear, how trite, and tamely methodical, compared with the wild-warbling cadence, the heart moving melody of the first ---There is a degree of wild irregularity in many of the compositions and fragments which are daily sung to them by my compeers, the common people --- This has made me sometimes imagine that perhaps, it might be possible for a Scotch Poet, with a nice, judicious ear, to set compositions to many of our more favourite airs, particularly that class --- independent of rhyme altogether.

“There is a noble sublimity, a heart melting tenderness in some of these ancient fragments, which show them to be the work of a masterly hand; and it has often given me many a heart ake to reflect that such glorious old Bards - Bards, who, very probably, owed all their talents to native genius --- their very names are “buried mongst the wreck of things which were”. O ye illustrious Names unknown! who could feel so strongly and describe so well! The last, the meanest of the Muses train --- a poor, rustic Bard unknown, pays this sympathetic pang to your memory.”

Noo, ignorin the fact that the boy seems tae speak tae his filofax in Inglis, Burns is expressin an antiquarian interest, a patriotic pride, an a repone tae the oangaein thocht o simplicity an passion. He takes, gie near verbatum, the times’ criteria of o poetic genius - “to feel strongly and to describe naturally”.

He has, in a wie no been blunted bi the cities’ elegance, o the virr an smeddum o fowk-sang; an he kens, hardly yet, the importance o traditional tunes. Yet the time wiz tae come whaun he wuild raither tak ill advice an chinge the words in some poems raither than he wuild chinge ain word o the sangs.

In the sangs he wiz interpreter raither than initiator an in thisorra wie he helpt bring poetry an music back thegither while - an this is pairt o the genius o the man - he kept them apaitt in his ain poems. He was aye himsell.

But let ais feenish wie a tale frae newly lamented an already missed great poet. Here’s a tale frae Norman MacCaig aboot a third poet, Hugh MacDainmid.

“MacDairmid used to refer to Robert Burns as Mr. R. Burns’. I think he was a wee bit jelous. Well two fellows came to my house with MacDairmid and they got on to Mr R. Burns. They were “fans”. And one of them asked the other, “What do you think is the best line or verse that Burns wrote?” Quoted - asked his friend - quoted - then asked MacDairmid. I expected a political poem or a satirical poem or a poem of visionary ideas, but he said, The best line that Burns ever wrote was Ye are na Mary Morison’. Not very spectacular, until you put it in context. It’s the middle verse of a beautiful song called Mary        Morison:

                   Yestreen, when to the tremblin string

                     the dance gaed through the lichted haa,

                     to thee my fancy took its wing,                    

I sat, but neither heard no saw:                    

tho this wiz fair, an that wiz braw,                    

an yon the toast o awe the toon,

                   I sighed and said amang them awe; --

                   “Ye are na Mary Morison!”

And I can't understand how a man could load these few dull, ordinary words with such   feeling.

Ladies and Gentlemen tae the memory o poets deid an alive - the Immortal Memory o Robert Burns.